In this week’s column, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and co-author of the updated edition of How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, addresses a soon-to-be widow’s concerns over the Social Security survivor’s benefit.

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If I filed separate tax returns from my husband, will I not get my Social Security survivor’s benefit?

Question: My husband of seven years and I have always filed “married – separate” tax returns. He has fallen quite ill recently. He collects Social Security and will be passing soon. Does the way we file our taxes affect me in terms of how or whether I would qualify for “widows” benefit and collecting on his Social Security as a widow? I am 60 years old.

Does it matter how we filed our taxes? Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.


Answer: I am so sorry to hear about your husband’s failing health. I get lots of questions like this and can appreciate people being concerned, especially in the midst of trying to deal with the imminent death of a spouse.

Let me put you at ease. I have never heard of any concerns about survivor benefits being at risk due to a person’s tax-filing status.

Your survivor benefits will be based on your husband’s Social Security earnings record, not on his tax returns. If he dies during 2019, you will have the choice of whether to file a separate or joint return next year for income earned this year. 

If you do not have a tax accountant, I’d recommend you find one, not only for next year’s taxes but also for the numerous financial consequences that can be triggered by the death of a spouse. I’d also look for someone who can help you do some financial planning for your future.

Your survivor benefits will be based on your husband’s Social Security earnings record, not on his tax returns.
Phil Moeller

I do not know how much money you earn at work or even if you have a job. But this is the key variable that will affect any Social Security benefit you claim during the next several years.

You are younger than full retirement age (FRA), so if you file for a survivor benefit before reaching your FRA, the payment you receive could be reduced or even eliminated by Social Security’s earnings test rules. 

Perhaps of even greater importance, survivor benefits taken at age 60 for someone born in 1959 could be as much as 28 percent lower each month for the rest of your life as compared with your monthly benefit if you filed at your FRA of 66 and six months. This may not be a concern for you but I at least wanted you to be aware of this. People are eligible for this benefit at early as age 60 (age 50 if you qualify for Social Security disability benefits). 

Another significant claiming decision for you involves your ability to file for your own retirement benefit when you turn 62. Filing at this age would also result in benefits sharply lower than if you waited until age 70 to file. 

Under Social Security rules, a surviving spouse has the option of filing for either her own retirement benefit or a survivor benefit while deferring the unclaimed benefit until it reaches its maximum value at a later claiming age. I know that this is a mouthful, but what it means is that you could claim the lower of the two benefits while deferring the higher benefit.

As I said earlier, your survivor benefit peaks in value if you wait until your FRA to claim it. Your retirement benefit peaks at the filing age of 70. 

If your retirement benefit at 70 is going to be the larger of the two, you should file for your survivor benefit right away and then file for your retirement benefit when you turn 70. At that time, you would receive an additional payment equal to the amount by which the retirement benefit exceeded your survivor benefit.

On the other hand, if your survivor benefit at you FRA was the larger of the two, then you should claim your retirement benefit at age 62 and then claim your survivor benefit at your FRA.

Social Security should be able to help you. You I prefer face-to-face meetings at a local office if the wait is not too long. I’d call ahead and try to schedule a meeting rather than just showing up. When you do go to the meeting, bring proof of your marriage and a copy of your late husband’s death certificate.

It’s especially important that you tell Social Security that you wish to claim only one benefit and defer the other. 

Again, I’m so sorry you are about to lose your husband. Please let me know if you have any other questions.